You might be done with the past, but the past is not through with you.
Simon Critchley had a conversation with Philip Seymour Hoffman in December. The two men talked about happiness, drawing equally from academic philosophy and the films of Paul Thomas Anderson.
The question of death and one’s legacy in relation to happiness appears when Critchley paraphrases Sophocles, “No man happy until he is dead” (12:45). In Oedipus Rex, the chorus is the final arbiter of happiness. Critchley uses this to equate happiness with glory, on the Greek view: Happy are they who eschew pleasure for the sake of an immortal reputation.
Hoffman adamantly rejects this Nietzschean beatitude. But the phrase “no man happy until he is dead” has an older provenance in Greek tragedy. In the Oresteia it comes from the mouth of Agamemnon, not the chorus. For Aeschylus it inoculates us against optimism. Tragedy can erupt out of the past even in the lives of the theretofore most fortunate person.
The conversation took place in the wake of a crisis. The setting is three days after the mass murder of children that took place at Sandy Hook in Newtown, Connecticut. Hoffman reflects that his greatest happiness is enjoying the presence of his children. The wise epicurean is aware that happiness must be sought as contentment with fragile and simple pleasures. Reflecting on a national tragedy, Hoffman presages his own “sick” search for pleasure: “There’s no pleasure that I haven’t actually made my self sick on. And so I look at pleasure and kind of get scared.”
In all-too-obvious ways, this conversation puts the tragedy of Hoffman’s untimely death in sharp relief. A haunted man talks calmly and articulately about his doom for forty-five minutes. When the conversation starts to lull at the end, Hoffman surprises Critchley with an emphatic question. What does Montaigne mean that ‘learning how to die’ is ‘learning how to live’?
Critchley’s gloss is that philosophy unmasks the world as a “counterfeit eternity”. Devoid of ritual, our culture flees death. Christians, in contrast, long meditated on Christ crucified. At this point, Hoffman brings up the Church in a more humane light: a “place to go” when we have no understanding.
The conversation fades out soon afterwards.